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After Facebook changed its algorithm in 2018, Republican groups achieved significantly higher response and reach on Facebook with their posts than the political competition on the side of the Democrats. American researchers from Miami University in Oxford and Wright State University in Dayton, both located in the US state of Ohio, have found that: discovered in a study. The study examined the engagement of Republican and Democratic Facebook groups on Facebook and Twitter between January 2016 and August 2021.

As a result, as of late 2018, there were anomalies on Facebook that could not be proven on Twitter. The researchers recorded significantly more activity around Republican posts than Democratic opponents’ posts, although they were much more likely to post on the social web. After Facebook changed its algorithm, Republican posts were shared twice as much as Democrat content, it said.

Given these patterns, the researchers are deeply concerned about the state of American political culture. Nearly seven in ten Americans said they will be using Facebook by 2021 — half of that on a daily basis. Well over a third received regular messages from Facebook. “If changes to the algorithm fundamentally change the reach of political parties on Facebook, there is a possibility that Facebook unintentionally or intentionally influences the political reality of Americans,” the researchers said.

Facebook justified its adjustments to its own algorithm in 2018 by wanting to focus more on the personal connections between users of the social network, called “Meaningful Social Interactions” (MSIs). As a result, however, public voices got louder and louder, warning that Facebook rewarded negative comments and hate speech with more publicity on its platform. Documents presented by whistleblower Frances Haugen last year suggest that Facebook is doing too little to counter the negative effects of its platform, such as attempts to manipulate elections.

The latest studies at American universities now seem to confirm this. The researchers give two possible explanations for the observed phenomenon.

  1. According to her, anger increases the engagement of social media users. Political parties that abuse negative emotions can take advantage of this. Republican partisans are likely to have shared more content consistent with such negative patterns.

  2. Internal Facebook documents suggest that the company feared regulatory intervention by conservatives and therefore – consciously or unconsciously – gave conservative news and pages greater reach. Particularly in conservative circles in the US, the prejudice is widespread that ‘left-liberal’ online platforms censor news and content. Those responsible for Facebook might have wanted to counter this.

The metagroup, to which Facebook belongs, dismissed the allegations as implausible. Company spokesman Dani Lever told US news portal “NBC”.: “The research does not match what has actually been achieved with MSI, which is to reduce the amount of public content – for example from political parties – on the platform.” Lever pointed out that the divide between political camps in the US has been widening for decades. “The idea that changing the Facebook rankings would fundamentally change the way people interact with political parties is incredible.”

Whichever version is correct, one fact should probably be undisputed: the influence of social media on political opinion is growing. The American researchers write that the role of the political parties should be further investigated. Particularly in the US, local groups of Republicans and Democrats have enormous influence when it comes to advertising candidates or collecting donations. “When these parties spread information on social media that fuels division and anger, it can erode trust in government, political institutions and even democracy itself,” the researchers warn.

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